Today, the University of Michigan senior applies his programming skills differently. He writes computer instructions that direct cells and other fluids through channels on a microchip. These directions "trick" the cells so they react as if they're in the body.

Gu developed a novel approach to switching microfluidic channels on and off. He relies on the off-the-shelf system of raised pins that let Braille readers interpret computer displays.

The pins that help Braille readers feel raised dots representing letters are used to pinch and unpinch parts of the microfluidic plumbing. This changes the course fluids follow through the device.

Shuichi Takayama, Gu's advisor and an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, says the first application of the invention will be for an "animal on a chip" which might be used for clinical diagnostics, drug development, or biosensors. There are many potential applications, and the intellectual property has been protected.

"We are exploring many options for commercialization," said Karen Studer-Rabeler, associate director for new business development in the Office of Technology Transfer.

Takayama envisions tiny wells of living tissue, such as muscle, bone, lung, and so on, are connected by a tiny circulatory system. The system is packaged in a housing about the size of a big calculator. It wouldn't be quite the same as a laboratory mouse, but functionally, it may come close enough to approximate the real thing.

"It may be ethically more palatable than using lab animals. Most importantly, you could use real human cells to run the tests," Takayama said.

The microfluidic channels are 300 mm wide and 30 mm high. "To allow cells to work like real tissues, we don't want the channels to be too big or too small," Takayama said. The current design has channels of about 10 to 20 cells wide.

In its initial state, several distinct wells on the device would be seeded with un-differentiated stem cells, the blank slates of biology. Each of these wells would then be given the right chemical mixture of hormones and nutrients. This mixture tells stem cells to develop into a particular kind of tissue.

Once cells have developed distinct identities, microfluidic channels would be rerouted to allow different wells of living tissue to exchange fluids. Then, a drug candidate might be flowed through the device to see how it affects different kinds of tissue.

Gu thinks microfluidic machines could become powerful diagnostic tools for doctors, or let patients monitor their health more precisely than is possible today. He also believes these devices could, in the future, be as common as cell phones or laptops.